Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Rethinking Evangelicalism

In “Rethinking Life” I intentionally did not discuss my understanding of being an Evangelical. Here is a brief effort to remedy that omission. In response to one of the Facebook responses to “Rethinking Life”, I noted the National Association of Evangelicals’ web page, in which the NAE uses Bebbington’s summary of Evangelical distinctives:
·         Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a life long process of following Jesus.
·         Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts.
·         Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority.
·         Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity.

I like this shortlist, although one can debate its adequacy. I see two basic streams to the Evangelical movement. One is represented by the Gospel Coalition and such figures as John Piper and Don Carson. On the web the first sentence of their “foundation documents” reads: “We are a fellowship of evangelical churches in the Reformed tradition deeply committed to renewing our faith in the gospel of Christ and to reforming our ministry practices to conform fully to the Scriptures.”

One sees in their self-definition a sense that to be Evangelical is to be Reformed. One sees also the immediate reference to Scripture, with a strong commitment to “conform fully” to Scripture. My own sense is that the Reformed stream emphasizes doctrine over experience. The testimony of someone like Millard Erickson (a prominent theologian within the Reformed Evangelical stream) reinforces my impression. There is much good in this stream. The pastoral work of Tim Keller in New York City shows how good it can be, as does John Piper’s ministry in Minneapolis-Saint Paul.

The second stream comes from the Wesleyan-Holiness movement, and prioritizes the personal experience of God’s presence. We can see this priority in the way that the Methodist movement grew in the United States in the latter part of the 19th Century, and in the way that the great Pentecostal Revival of 1906 spread from Azusa Street, Los Angeles.

The Wesleyan stream is less organized than the Reformed stream. The Brethren in Christ (my church family) has been part of the Christian Holiness Association, which was an expression of this stream, but the association appears to be dormant. Wesleyanism is best represented by organizations such as Asbury Theological Seminary (where I did my mission studies).

I can summarize the difference between the two streams by using Bebbington’s four markers. Wesleyans emphasize the first two: conversion (that is, experience) and activism (that is, living out one’s faith in concrete ways). Reformed Evangelicals emphasize the latter two: Biblicism (a strong commitment to the authority of Scripture) and crucicentrism (the centrality of the cross).

One can easily overstate the difference. Wesleyans embrace the cross and rely fully on Scripture; the Reformed movement believes in conversion and discipleship. One should think, then, of a difference in emphasis, not of two visions in conflict. The difference in emphasis is, however, important. Reformed Evangelicals are more likely to insist on stating things the right way. Wesleyan Evangelicals are more likely to start with a personal testimony. I am a Wesleyan!

Experience and Doctrine: Subjective and Objective
One of those who commented on “Rethinking life” made an important point that holds both sides together, He said, “While I think that ‘stressing relationship with God over doctrine about God’ sounds good... unless we have a good understanding of who this God is (doctrine about God) we may all end up having a relationship with different gods. Just to say that both are rather important to the Christian mindset.”

He is, of course, right. In response I add that the danger of a subjective perception that misidentifies God exists for both streams. The God defined by those who focus on doctrine can be as subjective as the God defined by those who say, “The Spirit told me.” We interpret Scripture from our socially constructed lives, which leads to what missiologists call “local theologies”. Everyone constructs there theology like this. Africans responding to the fear of witchcraft construct a local theology; Americans worrying about the influence of secularism construct a local theology. We have to do the hard work of hearing the Scripture speak for itself in order to hear God’s supracultural gospel (to use Charles Kraft’s phrase).

Similarly, people who have a spiritual experience may think that God is at work, when in fact the source of the experience is not God. I remember a Pentecostal friend in Zimbabwe who critiqued the Toronto Airport Church for me. He said, “You Americans are funny. You see someone roar like a lion or engage in holy laughter, and you think it must be the Spirit of God. We have seen these things in Zimbabwe too, and we know that it is not always God’s Spirit.” What protects us from our own subjective experience is the objective reality of God. When one gives oneself fully to the “God who is there”, God takes care of bringing objective reality into our experience.

So both streams need to heed my friend’s warning. We rely on Scripture and we give our lives to Christ. We seek to understand and to experience the cross. We live out our lives fully in light of our commitments to Christ as we meet him in the Bible.

The Centre and Boundaries
A second observation about Bebbington’s four marks of the Evangelical movement. The emphasis on doctrine tends to focus on boundary issues, so those in the Reformed stream are more likely to draw lines that others cannot cross if they wish to stay in the movement. I prefer to emphasize the centre and to use these four marks—experience, activism, Scripture, and the cross—as the common core that Evangelicals share. This emphasis fits better with my Wesleyan orientation.

The problem with drawing lines that others cannot cross is that it moves boundary issues to the centre of the Evangelical paradigm. For example, those in the Reformed stream tend to make complementarian thinking a line one cannot cross: Women cannot serve in church leadership. In the Wesleyan Holiness movement women have been leaders for more than one hundred years. General William Booth’s daughter, for example, became the fourth leader (General) of the Salvation Army in 1934. Wesleyans tend to be egalitarian on the issue of women in ministry. Now using the four marks of Evangelicalism looks like a set of core issues that we can use at the centre of our identity. The role of women in ministry is a boundary issue—more marginal, and not necessary for an Evangelical identity.

Another example: Those in the Reformed stream insist on Penal Substitutionary Atonement as the model Evangelicals must use to understand the saving work of Christ on the Cross. But surely the precise model is a marginal issue. Perhaps it can serve as a fuzzy boundary between two branches of the Christian faith (for example, Roman Catholics, who refer to the Satisfaction Theory [of which PSA is a subset] and the Eastern Orthodox, who I think refer to Regeneration or something like that). But we are saved by Christ’s work on the cross; elevating a theory of how that works to a line that cannot be crossed moves PSA from the margin to the centre. I don’t think it’s a helpful way to move forward.

To be clear, I think that the PSA makes sense and is worth using in our understanding of the atonement, but I don’t think it is nearly as important as is experiencing the presence of Christ in one’s life. A friend of mine has observed that N.T. Wright, the English theologian, has been in significant conflict with the Gospel Coalition over this issue, because they want to make PSA normative for all Evangelicals. I’d rather be a Wesleyan!

Some random wanderings by a decidedly amateur theologian. I beg the forbearance of those who know this whole field better than I do and welcome correction as leading to my own better understanding of what I’m talking about.

No comments: